Marvel’s Eternal problem: The Man, the Powers that Be, and God

The MCU’s new ensemble origin story Eternals takes a key Marvel theme — skepticism of authority — pretty much to the absolute top, raising inevitable questions not only about why any of this matters, but what “mattering” means.

This article contains spoilers for Eternals. SDG Original source: National Catholic Register
“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” — C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

One of the most enduring raps on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its villain problem. After over a dozen years and some 25 films featuring dozens of superheroes, the MCU has produced just two memorable, enduring antagonists: Tom Hiddleston’s mercurial Loki and Josh Brolin’s emo nihilist Thanos. Not to slight Michael B. Jordan’s incandescent Killmonger, among maybe one or two others who stand out amid a deep bench of forgettable mediocrities like Malekith and Taskmaster — but even the best of the rest have, so far, been one-and-done baddies of the week.

Eternals — a sweeping ensemble origin story spanning thousands of years of human history and introducing a record-breaking 10 new costumed heroes at one go — adds a number of new forgettable antagonists, mostly the mindless monstrosities called Deviants. At least one non-Deviant antagonist is officially a spoiler, but you’ll probably spot the other one out of the gate if you’ve been paying attention. He’s a culmination of an archetype running through Marvel movies from the beginning: an apotheosis of the MCU’s most consistent idea, if not their only idea.

This archetype can be broadly called “The Man” or “the Powers that Be.” Always a powerful, patriarchal establishment figure, like Obadiah Stane, Nick Fury, or Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford’s character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), The Man is often the protagonist’s actual father, like Howard Stark or Black Panther’s father T’Chaka. Sometimes Dad is a literal higher power, a being of quasi-divine status, like Odin of Asgard, Ego the Celestial (father of Star-Lord), or the immortal Wenwu (father of Shang-Chi). In The Eternals, The Man is something more exalted still — and this has unavoidable existential and dramatic consequences.

Incarnations of The Man vary from one MCU movie to another in terms of how sympathetic or compromised he is. Always, though, The Man has damaging secrets, misrepresents his true intentions, and can’t be trusted, at least not completely. Even if The Man himself is more sympathetic than not, the institution, legacy, program, or domain he represents is fundamentally compromised or corrupt.

The Winter Soldier’s “Who watches the watchmen?” theme — unaccountable government agencies amassing too much power over the lives of citizens — evokes real-world political concerns such as the excesses of the Patriot Act. Revelations of Asgard’s shameful founding have topical resonance in our day, with civil and ecclesiastical authorities being called to account for their complicity in what have been called genocidal acts against Indigenous Americans.

“Let’s just say the greater good has rarely outweighed my own self-interest,” Howard Stark himself eventually admitted to Tony in a poignant, time-bending final encounter. Howard left his son a legacy of war profiteering, and the way he dispatched his unscrupulous colleague Anton Venko — who helped invent Stark Industries’ greatest nonviolent achievement, the arc reactor — was ruthless at best, and had grave consequences for both men’s sons, especially Venko’s. Taking this tainted legacy to a new level, Tony’s surrogate father figure Obadiah Stane sold weapons to terrorists.

Behind Nick Fury’s dissembling about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s super-weapons program, among other things, may have been humane motives, but S.H.I.E.L.D. itself was secretly rotten from within, infiltrated and subverted by Hydra, a terrorist secret society with Nazi ties. Odin and T’Chaka were largely depicted as benevolent rulers, but their regimes papered over their leaders’ unacknowledged crimes: Odin’s campaigns of genocide and murderous conquest; T’Chaka’s cover-up of the killing of his radicalized brother N’Jobu and the abandonment of N’Jobu’s young son, the future Killmonger. (Wakanda’s historic isolationism in the face of African suffering and turmoil is a further stain on its legacy.)

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